Two Decades of the Rushdie Rules
by Daniel Pipes
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From a novel by Salman Rushdie published in 1989 to an American civil protest called "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day" in 2010, a familiar pattern has evolved. It begins when Westerners say or do something critical of Islam. Islamists respond with name-calling and outrage, demands for retraction, threats of lawsuits and violence, and actual violence. In turn, Westerners hem and haw, prevaricate, and finally fold. Along the way, each controversy prompts a debate focusing on the issue of free speech.
I shall argue two points about this sequence. First, that the right of Westerners to discuss, criticize, and even ridicule Islam and Muslims has eroded over the years. Second, that free speech is a minor part of the problem; at stake is something much deeper – indeed, a defining question of our time: will Westerners maintain their own historic civilization in the face of assault by Islamists, or will they cede to Islamic culture and law and submit to a form of second-class citizenship?
This unprecedented edict – no head of government had ever called for the execution of a novelist living in another country – came out of the blue and surprised everyone, from Iranian government officials to Rushdie himself. No one had imagined that a magical realist novel, replete with people falling out of the sky and animals that talk, might incur the wrath of the ruler of Iran, a country to which Rushdie had few connections.
The edict led to physical attacks on bookstores in Italy, Norway, and the United States and on translators of The Satanic Verses in Norway, Japan, and Turkey; in the last case, the translator and 36 others perished in an arson attack on a hotel. Other violence in Muslim-majority countries led to more than 20 fatalities, mostly in South Asia. Then, just as the furor wound down, in June 1989, Khomeini died; his death made the edict, sometimes inaccurately called a fatwa, immutable.
The edict contains four important elements. First, by noting "opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran," Khomeini delineated the wide range of sacred topics that may not be treated disrespectfully without invoking a death sentence.
Second, by targeting "all those involved in the publication who were aware of its contents," he declared war not just on the artist but also on an entire cultural infrastructure – including the thousands of employees of publishing houses, advertisers, distribution companies, and bookstores.
Third, by ordering Rushdie's execution "so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities," Khomeini made clear his purpose not only to punish one writer but also to prevent further instances of ridicule.
Finally, by demanding that those unable to execute Rushdie "report him," Khomeini called on every Muslim worldwide to become part of an informal intelligence network dedicated to upholding Islamic sanctities.
These four features together constitute what I call the Rushdie Rules. Two decades later, they remain very much in place.
The edict set several precedents in the West. A foreign political leader successfully ignored conventional limits on state powers. A religious leader at will intervened directly, with little cost or resistance, in Western cultural affairs. And a Muslim leader established the precedent of applying an aspect of Islamic law, the Shari'a, in an overwhelmingly non-Muslim country. On this last point: Western states have, at times, served as Khomeini's effective agents. The government of Austria imposed a suspended prison sentence on a person who defied the Rushdie Rules, while the governments of France and Australia brought charges that could have meant jail time. Most strikingly, authorities in Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Finland, and Israel actually jailed Rushdie-Rule trespassers. It takes effort to recall the innocent days before 1989, when Westerners freely spoke and wrote about Islam and related subjects.
The Rushdie Rules had an immediate impact on Muslims living in the West, whose outbursts of insults and violence generated a newfound sense of power. From Sweden to New Zealand, Islamists responded with joy that, after centuries on the defensive, Muslims had found their voice and, from the belly of the beast, could challenge the West. Most of the violence that followed was of the indiscriminate sort, on the model of 9/11, Bali, Madrid, Beslan, and London, in which jihadists killed whoever happened to cross their paths; TheReligionOfPeace.com documents on average five indiscriminate Islamist terrorist attacks per day around the world.
Less common but more intimidating is the violence that targets those who defy the Rushdie Rules. Let us limit examples of this phenomenon to one country, Denmark. In October 2004, an instructor at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute at the University of Copenhagen was kicked and hit by several strangers as he left the university. They informed him that he had read from the Koran, which as an infidel (kafir) he had no right to do. In October 2005, Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose was threatened for having commissioned cartoons depicting Muhammad. Two of the cartoonists had to go into hiding. One of them, Kurt Westergaard, subsequently narrowly escaped physical attack inside his home. In March 2006, Naser Khader, an anti-Islamist politician, was threatened by an Islamist who warned that if Khader became a government minister, he and his ministry would be blown up.
The Danish experience is typical. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Across Europe, dozens of people are now in hiding or under police protection because of threats from Muslim extremists." Even Pope Benedict XVI received a flurry of threats in the aftermath of his quoting a Byzantine emperor on the subject of Islam. In the Netherlands alone, politicians reported 121 death threats against them in just one year. The November 2004 execution on an Amsterdam street of Theo van Gogh – a well known libertarian, filmmaker, talk show host, newspaper columnist, and mischief-maker who had ridiculed Islam – traumatized his country and led to a brief state of insurrection.
Westerners generally perceive this violence as a challenge to their right to self-expression. But if freedom of speech is the battlefield, the greater war concerns the foundational principles of Western civilization. The recurrent pattern of Islamist uproar exists to achieve three goals – not always articulated – that go well beyond prohibiting criticism of Islam.
A first goal consists of establishing a superior status for Islam. Khomeini's demands for the sacred trinity of "Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran" imply special privileges for one religion, an exclusion from the hurly-burly of the marketplace of ideas. Islam would benefit from unique rules unavailable to other religions. Jesus may be sacrilegiously lampooned in Monty Python's Life of Brian or Terry McNally's Corpus Christi, but, as one book's title puts it, "be careful with Muhammad!"
This segues to a second goal – Muslim supremacy and Western inferiority. Islamists routinely say and do things more offensive to Westerners than anything Westerners do vis-à-vis Muslims. They openly despise Western culture; in the words of an Algerian Islamist, it's not a civilization, but a "syphilization." Their mainstream media publishes coarser, viler, and more violent cartoons than anything commissioned by Flemming Rose. They freely insult Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They murder Jews just for being Jews, like Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, Sébastian Sellam and Ilan Halimi in France, and Pamela Waechter and Ariel Sellouk in the United States. Whether because of fear or inattention, Westerners assent to an imbalance whereby Muslims may offend and attack while they themselves are shielded from any such indignities or pains.
Should Westerners accept this imbalance, the dhimmi status will follow. This Islamic concept permits "people of the book," monotheists such as Christians and Jews, to continue to practice their religion under Muslim rule, subject to many restrictions. For its time, the dhimmi status offered certain benefits (until as recently as 1945, Jews generally had better lives in Islamdom than in Christendom), but it is intended to insult and humiliate non-Muslims, even as it exalts Muslims' superiority. Dhimmis pay additional taxes, may not join the military or the government, and suffer from encompassing legal disabilities. In some times and places, dhimmis could ride on a donkey but not on a horse, wore distinctive clothing, and an elderly dhimmi on the street was required to jump out of the way of a Muslim child. Elements of the dhimmi status have recently been applied in such varied places as Gaza, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Clearly, Londonistan and beyond are also in their sights.
In turn, re-establishing the dhimmi status is one step toward the Islamist's third and ultimate ambition, applying full Shari'a law. Closing down discussion of Islam paves the way toward this end. Conversely, retaining free speech about Islam represents a critical defense against the imposition of an Islamic order. Keeping our civilization requires open discussion of Islam.
The Shari'a regulates both private and public life. The private dimension includes such intensely personal matters as bodily cleanliness, sexuality, childbearing, family relations, clothing, and diet. In the public realm, the Shari'a regulates social relations, commercial transactions, criminal penalties, the status of women and minorities, slavery, the identity of the ruler, the judiciary, taxation, and warfare. In brief, Islamic law includes everything from toilet etiquette to the conduct of warfare.
Yet the Shari'a contradicts the deepest premises of Western civilization. The unequal relations of male and female, of Muslim and kafir, of owner and slave cannot be reconciled with equality of rights. The harem cannot be reconciled with a monogamous order. Islamic supremacism contradicts freedom of religion. A sovereign God cannot allow democracy.
Islamists all concur on the goal of applying Islamic law globally. But they differ on whether to achieve this through violence (the preference of bin Laden), totalitarian rule (Khomeini), or by politically gaming the system (the Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan). However done, were Islamists to achieve a Shar'i order, they would effectively replace Western civilization with Islamic civilization. In American terms, allowing the Koran to trump the Constitution ends the United States as it has existed for more than two centuries.
The MCB seeks to create an environment in schools in which Muslim children do not make "inappropriate assumptions" that "to progress in society they will have to compromise or give up aspects of who they are, and their religious beliefs and values." Toward this end, the MCB proposes a jaw-dropping list of changes that would fundamentally alter the nature of British schools, transforming them, in effect, into Saudi-like institutions. Some of its suggestions:
Overhauling schools is just one of a myriad of planned changes. Step by step, piece by piece, Islamists wish to trump the premises of Western life by infusing its education, cultural life, and institutions with a concurrent Islamic system that in time overrides secular institutions, until an Islamic order comes operationally into being. Some changes are already in place and extend to many aspects of life. A few pungent examples:
Polygamous marriages are valid under certain circumstances in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Muslim women-only swimming sessions exist in municipal pools in Washington State. Women-only classes are being offered at Virginia Tech, a taxpayer-supported university. Women can have their drivers license photographs taken wearing hijabs in three U.S. states. If they work at IKEA or for the London police, women can wear branded hijabs provided by their employers.
Piggybanks have been banned as a symbol of saving at two major British banks. "Any matter containing religious materials contrary to Islamic faith" may not be sent via the U.S. postal system to soldiers serving in the Middle East. Medical personnel may not eat or drink in the presence of Muslim patients or colleagues during the month of Ramadan in a Scottish hospital. The City of Boston sold public land at a discount price to build an Islamic institution.
In retrospect, responses to the Rushdie edict among intellectuals and politicians in 1989 were noteworthy for the support for the imperiled novelist, especially on the left. Leftist intellectuals were more likely to stand by him (Susan Sontag: "our integrity as a nation is as endangered by an attack on a writer as on an oil tanker") than were those on the right (Patrick Buchanan: "we should shove his blasphemous little novel out into the cold"). But times have changed: Paul Berman recently published a book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, that excoriates his fellow liberals for (as the dust jacket puts it) having "fumbled badly in their effort to grapple with Islamist ideas and violence."
At the time, François Mitterrand, the socialist president of France, called the threat to Rushdie an "absolute evil." The Green Party in Germany sought to break all economic agreements with Iran. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, endorsed a European Union resolution supporting Rushdie as "a signal to assure the preservation of civilization and human values." The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that declared its commitment "to protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy, and read books without fear of intimidation and violence" and condemned Khomeini's threat as "state-sponsored terrorism." Such governmental responses are inconceivable in 2010.
For every exercise in free speech since 1989, such as the Danish Muhammad cartoons or the no-holds-barred studies of Islam published by Prometheus Books, uncountable legions of writers, publishers, and illustrators have shied away from expressing themselves. Two examples: Paramount Pictures replaced the Hamas-like terrorists of Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears with European neo-Nazis in its movie version of the story. And Yale University Press published a book on the Danish cartoon crisis without permitting the cartoons to be reproduced in the study.
The reasoning of those who capitulate is as unexceptional as it is dismal: "This decision was based solely on concern for public safety"; "the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority"; "I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat"; "If I would have said what I actually think about Islam, I wouldn't be in this world for long"; and "'If this goes down badly, I'm writing my own death warrant."
Changes since 1989 result mainly from the growth of three isms: multiculturalism, left-fascism, and Islamism. The multicultural impulse regards no way of life, belief system, or political philosophy better or worse than any other. Just as Italian and Japanese food are both delicious and filling, so environmentalism or Wicca offer equally valid alternatives to Judeo-Christian civilization. Why fight for one's way of life when it has no claim to superiority over any other?
But perhaps one way is worse: if Western imperialism and the white race pollute the world, who wants Western civilization? A sizable movement of left-fascists, led by Hugo Chávez, sees Western power, which they call "Empire," as the world's main threat, with the United States and Israel viewed as the chief offenders.
Islamism has grown spectacularly since 1989, becoming the most powerful form of radical utopianism, forming an alliance with the left, dominating civil societies, challenging many governments and taking over others, establishing a beachhead in the West, and smartly advancing its agenda in international institutions.
The yin of Western weakness, in short, has met with the yang of Islamist assertion. Defenders of Western civilization must fight not just Islamists but also the multiculturalists who enable them and the leftists who ally with them.
Oct. 1, 2010 update: Much happened right after this article went to press and before it appeared today. For details, see my blog on "Late Breaking Rushdie-Rule Developments."
Sep.17, 2012 update: Rushdie waited nearly a quarter century to write down his experiences upon Khomeini imposing the edict. Oddly, his over-600-page memoir, Joseph Anton, is written in the third person, as though Rushdie still has not come to terms with his changed life. For a taste, here is the idiosyncratic first paragraph:
Also of interest is his confirming my speculation in The Rushdie Affair that he got the idea for the title while studying about Islam at the university: "He was in his second year of reading history at Cambridge when he learned about the Satanic Verses."
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